Last week was a food sustainability feeding frenzy for me. I participated in three events focusing variously on: food companies and sustainability, the role of marketing, and how to influence consumer behaviour. The first was a breakfast briefing, hosted by our friends at The Futures Company, where I was a panellist. Later that day I attended Unilever’s live webcast update on Sustainable Living hosted by Jonathan Dimbleby. The next day, I spoke at a Footprint Forum event at Innocent’s new HQ in West London, where we looked at sustainability issues and the food service sector. Richard Reed, one of the founders of Innocent, entertained us all with his take on sustainability in his unique business.
All of these events were well organised and the quality of the conversation was unusually high. It’s certainly the case that sustainability and the role of marketing is one of the issues du jour and rightly so. But certain aspects of this debate bemuse me.
It’s clear to me that a significant part of the problem is our consumer society where one’s sense of worth has largely become based upon how much stuff we own. The modern advertising industry was built on this premise. Tens of millions of new consumers in developing countries are also getting the ‘have not be’ bug too, so the problems of unsustainable resource consumption are only going to get worse. But now, if you listen to the latest chatter, we have a new imperative and we must leave mindless consumption behind us. It’s simply a question of engaging with consumers about the problems of an unsustainable world and getting them to change their behaviour. And guess who is going to be selling that message and profit from making that dream a reality? Perish the thought that the old-school marketing agencies shouldn’t be given free rein to make another fast buck out of their clients while ‘saving the world’.
One of the underlying messages I kept hearing last week was that consumers don’t want to hear about the problems of the world, being gloomy won’t ‘engage’ them and if we all keep smiling and thinking positively, all will be OK. At heart, I have a lot of sympathy with focusing on the upside, but some of what I heard reminded me of the last act of Peter Pan (you remember: ‘Clap if you believe in fairies’).
Why am I concerned? First, look at the general quality of above-the-line marketing of sustainability. Complex messages distilled down to simplistic aphorisms because “We don’t want to confuse people”. So bottled pasta sauces are now ‘only made with natural ingredients’. What were they made with before – unnatural ones? And are we honestly to believe that our mainstream electricity supplier is really going to decarbonise our economy and solve climate change if only we switched to them? Perhaps I am being unfair, and some of these messages are having some effect with some consumers. But will we really engage mainstream consumers and course-correct the super-tanker if, suddenly, every consumer product from candy bars to toilet cleaners adopts a single-issue green tinge?
Another cause for concern for me came from the deep dive we took into the food sector and sustainability at the Footprint Forum, where we debated John Beddington’s Perfect Storm prediction for 2030.
One of the strands of conversation was current global trends in the soy market. Soy has now become an essential animal feed for pig and poultry production around the world, increasingly for aquaculture and sometimes for beef. Not so long ago, China was a net exporter of soy. But as it has developed, it now needs to import a lot of soy to feed its growing taste for meat. In fact, its import needs are huge, perhaps equivalent to the scale of Brazil’s export market. Think of McDonalds and all the effort that company went to in response to criticism of its alleged role in deforestation in South America. They have been admired by some for their progress in developing a shared view of what sustainable agriculture might look, like in partnership with their suppliers. But what will happen when markets like China offer soy producers a better price without imposing similar sustainability hurdles for suppliers to jump over? One of our panel, Tim Oliver from ABSustain, told us this is already happening with an announcement only this week of a massive new deal between China and Brazil. Meanwhile, India’s taste for meat is growing.
This conversation about soy was only one element of a complex conversation, but a number of us on the panel started to conclude that the Perfect Storm may not even be 18 years away – in fact, in some ways it is already here.
One of the other arguments we heard last week was was that every generation thinks it is disproportionately burdened by the problems of the future and yet ‘life goes on’ – and I think there is some truth in that. Human beings are ingenious and in extremis we can do amazing things. It’s just that I am not sure we’ll market our way out of the problems we face.